Without Strategy, We Make Wallpaper

About a month ago, AdAge published an article titled, "Why Agencies are Obsessed with Pitching on Process Instead of Talent." The article talks about the dearth of intellectual capital at the modern agency that has resulted from firms, facing more financial pressures than ever, ditching experienced talent in favor of less expensive junior "do-ers."

Expanding on that theme, the article goes on to say: "That rare talent who understands complex categories or big brand platforms has been forced to go freelance...The ability to translate a client’s business challenge into a creative idea—extemporaneously during an unstructured conversation—is a vanishing skill..."

Since reading it, I keep returning to the same thought. Of all the things agencies do to devalue themselves and their product (and they are countless), this may be the most troubling. If clients can't rely on agencies as thinking partners, it only further commoditizes our creative output and equates our value with that of any number of resources who can crank out creative quickly, cheaply, and without the benefit of strategic thinking.

 If clients can't rely on agencies as thinking partners, it only further commoditizes our creative output.

Process is Not the Goal 

Having dismissed senior talent to improve bottom lines, and finding they can't pitch on borrowed talent, agencies are instead pitching process. Whether a custom approach to identify targets, develop campaigns or optimize impact, in a recent pitch audit, every agency had a proprietary process they tried to make the tip of their spear. Guess what wasn't at the tip? Ideas. Real ideas backed by a real thought. 

Some processes matter. We're very proud of the processes we've developed on agency workflow and believe they result in better output—work that is on time, on budget, and on the money. But, as agencies, we must remember where our value is and make sure we constantly remind clients of that instead of using process to disguise an absence of thinking. Ideas must lead; process supports. 

Strategy is a Learned Skill

Like most others, strategy is a learned skill. Sure, some may have a stronger inclination toward strategic thinking than others. But learning strategy comes from trial and error, seeing what has worked and what has not, and drawing from a range of experiences. There's that word: experience. There's no substitute for it. 

Firehouse has made maintaining a robust strategy team with a diverse set of learned skills a priority. Not every agency can, and it's not a requirement to be adept at strategy. But what is required is experience - people who know strategy and can impart that training and wisdom to others within the organization. In fact, an agency works best when strategy is not the exclusive purview of the strategy department and instead an ingrained way of thinking that starts at the top. 

It All Starts with Strategy

We often say "Ready, Fire, Aim" is no path to success. We insist that strategy comes first, always. No project is undertaken without a clear sense of its purpose and an understanding of the KPIs that will determine success. In our experience, the surest way to eliminate misspending, waste and endless frustration is alignment on strategy. And strategy is the difference between an idea that works and one that just hangs around. 

"We don't make wallpaper." Another phrase you will hear often in our halls. Visual noise bereft of an idea is exactly that—wallpaper that blends into the background. Making more of it is a service to neither ourselves nor our clients. And strategy is the answer.

As an agency professional in the business for over 30 years, I've seen the perception of agencies shift considerably. In many ways, I'm sad to say I think they lack the regard of the old days. While abandoning strategy is the surest way to add fuel to that fire, embracing it and the power of good ideas is the way to stop the burn.